Zheng He was born the second son of a Muslim family in Kunyang (Yunan province - southern China). He was originally named Ma Sanpao, ‘Ma’ is known in China as short for “Muhammad”, indicating Zheng He’s Muslim background. Both his father and his grandfather were Hajjis. It means that they had been able to go to Mecca for the pilgrimage. In 1381, when he was about 10 years old, Yunnan, the last Mongol hold in China, was reconquered by Chinese forces led by generals of the newly established Ming dynasty. The young Ma Sanbao (later Ma He), as he was then known, was among the boys who were captured, castrated, and sent into the army.
The ships of Zheng's armada was of huge size. Some accounts claim that the great treasure ships, had nine masts on 400-foot-long (122-meter-long) decks. The largest wooden ships ever built, they dwarfed those of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. Hundreds of smaller cargo, war, and supply ships bore tens of thousands of men who brought China to a wider world.
In July the fleet left Nanjing with silks, porcelain, and spices for trade. This well-armed floating city defeated pirates in the Strait of Malacca. The destination of the first voyage of the Treasure Fleet was Calicut, known as a major trading center on the southwestern coast of India. India was initially "discovered" by Chinese overland explorer Hsuan-Tsang in the seventh century. The fleet stopped in Vietnam, Java, and Malacca, and then headed west across the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka and Calicut and Cochin (cities on the southwest coast of India).
A second voyage of the Treasure Fleet departed on a return trip to India in 1407 but Cheng Ho did not command this voyage. The fleet returned foreign ambassadors from Sumatra, India, and elsewhere who had traveled to China on the first voyage. The expeditions firmly established the Ming dynasty's Indian Ocean trade links.
Although notable for the imperial fleet's only major foreign land battle, the voyage was also marked by Muslim Zheng's offering of gifts to a Buddhist temple, one of many examples of his ecumenism.
The goal of this trip was to reach the Persian Gulf at Hormuz, known to be a city of amazing wealth and goods, including pearls and precious stones. This voyage was the first one to travel beyond India and cross the Arabian Sea. In the summer of 1415, the Treasure Fleet returned with a bounty of trade goods from the Persian Gulf, an estimated 18 states sent tribute and envoys to China, underscoring the Ming emperor's influence overseas.
Zheng's Treasure Fleet visited the Arabian Peninsula and, for the first time, Africa. In Aden the sultan presented exotic gifts such as zebras, lions, and ostriches.
Zheng He's fleet continued the emperor's version of shuttle diplomacy, returning ambassadors to their native countries after stays of several years, while bringing other foreign dignitaries back to China. Emperor Zhu Di died in 1424 and his son Zhu Gaozhi became emperor. The new emperor ordered to stop the voyages of the Treasure Fleets and ordered ship builders and sailors to go home.
Seventh voyage & death
The last voyage, to Africa's Swahili coast, with a side trip to Mecca, marked the end of China's golden age of exploration and of Zheng He's life. He presumably died en route home. In 1985, a Muslim-style tomb was built in Nanjing on the site of an earlier horseshoe-shape grave; it contains his clothes and headgear as his body was buried at sea. Gavin Menzies in his book says that the Chinese map, found in a bookstore and created in the 18th century, is attributed to Chinese Admiral Zheng He and shows a detailed map of America dating back to 1418. That would place Zheng He’s efforts some 70 years ahead of Columbus. In fact, Menzies says Columbus used a copy of Zheng He's map to plot his own voyage.